24 December 2009

Learning About the Earth Sciences Through Digital Storytelling

Posted by Michael McFadden

As I reflect on this year’s Fall Meeting, I am amazed by the enthusiasm I saw at every talk and every poster session I attended. Whether I encountered students or emeritus professors, industry or government scientists, recruiters or those seeking jobs, I could feel the enthusiasm for teaching, learning, networking, hoping for that random encounter with ex-classmates to find out what new projects are in the works, building new collaborations. AGUFM09 is charged, it’s exciting, it’s THE place to be for anyone who cares about the Earth and space sciences.

But what put that enthusiasm on the face of every attendee I saw? They have a love for science, a passion for understanding and quantifying the world around them. But we live in a time where science and math education is suffering. As a former teacher, I remember my horror after I sat grading a diagnostic test I gave my high school pre-calc students on their first day–the majority of them couldn’t solve for x in the equation 4=3/x. We’re doing something as a culture that is not fostering curiosity and love for science and math. Reports such as the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future helps to place this pressing problem in context, but what we need–desperately–are programs that fill today’s youth with enthusiasm about science and math.  If we don’t find these projects, our field is doomed to stagnate and eventually fade.

For these reasons, I’m reserving the last two posts on this blog for two presentations that in my opinion really endeavored to capture the interests of primary school students.

The first talk I’ll focus on was in ED52A: Encouraging Success and Diversity Through Minority Participation in Science I. The third talk was about AMIST (Attracting Minorities to Geosciences through Involved Digital Story Telling), a program developed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Funded by NSF, the program is described on its website as a means “to test an innovative idea of integrating place-based geoscience education with culturally sensitive digital story telling, to engage and attract Alaska’s native and rural children from grades 3 through 5 to geosciences.”

Children recording their storiesWhat is digital storytelling? According to the presentation’s speaker, public school teacher Tanya Wimer of Fairbanks, Alaska, digital storytelling is a spin on the traditional narrative storytelling that is prevalent among Alaska’s native populations. It involves students making fictional stories about nature and the environment but communicating them through green screens and videos of drawings.

Wimer’s school district is more than 58% native Alaskan, and she says that the approach works well, allowing students to meet science standards while honoring culture.

First the students go on field trips to learn about things such as forest fires or permafrost. Then, in pairs, the students make stories that integrate what they learned on the field trip with their creative vision. The most insightful–and cutest–aspect of Wimer’s talk was when she relinquished the mic to a student, 4th-grader Josephine, who showed us her digital story about a flying squirrel’s encounter with a forest fire. “We got to use our imagination, illustrate what we wanted, and put in our own music,” Josephine said. “The best thing about this is that I got to learn science and be the expert!”

To see a student–a girl–so excited about science was truly wonderful!

You can see Josephine’s video project (co-produced with her partner Sarah) along with other AMIST digital stories, by clicking here.

–Mohi Kumar, AGU Science Writer